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Episode 24 - Paracas textile

Textile fragment from the Paracas peninsula on the southern coast of Peru (made around 300 BC)

Fashion as we all know is glamorous and extravagant, frivolous and ephemeral. But it's also a great way to grasp how a society thinks about itself. Looking at clothes is a key part of any serious looking at history. But as we all know to our cost, clothes don't last - they wear out, they fall apart and what survives gets eaten by the moths. Compared with stone, pottery or metal, clothes are pretty well non-starters in a history of the world told through 'things'. So regrettably, but perhaps not surprisingly, it's only now, well over a million years into our story, that we're coming to clothes and to all that they can tell us about economics and power structures, climate and customs, the living and the dead.

"Textiles just have a very unusual place." (Mary Frame)

"It's a constant amazement when we discover these things, and find that they're not new, and that they were invented years ago." (Zandra Rhodes)

The theme of our week so far has been one of empires collapsing, new regimes, and massive bloodshed. In the South America of 500 BC there were no empires yet to be overthrown but, as we shall see, there certainly was blood. We're learning new things all the time about the Americas at this date but, compared to what we know about Asia, much is still relatively mysterious, belonging to a world of behaviour and belief that we still struggle to interpret from fragmentary evidence.

I'm in a study room in the British Museum, and in front of me are pieces of cloth well over two thousand years old. They're usually kept in specially controlled conditions, so I'm not going to leave them all exposed to ordinary light and humidity for long. The first thing that strikes you about them is their extraordinary condition. They're each about three or four inches (100 mm) long, and they're embroidered in stem-stitch using wool, either from llamas or alpacas, we're not sure which - both animals are native to the Andes and were soon domesticated. The figures have been very carefully cut out and they must once have been part of a larger garment, a mantel or a cape, or something like that. They are strange beings - not entirely human in form - because they appear to have talons instead of hands, and claws for feet.

At first glance you might find these figures rather charming, as they appear to be flying through the air with their long pigtails or top knots trailing behind them . . . but when you look more closely, they're disconcerting, because you can see that they're wielding daggers and they're clasping severed heads. Perhaps the most striking thing about them, though, is the intricacy of the sewing and the surviving brilliance of the colours, with their blues and pinks, yellows and greens, all sitting very carefully judged next to one another.

These jewel-like scraps of cloth were found about 150 miles (240 km) south of modern Lima. With the coast in front of them and the Andes mountains behind them, the people of Paracas produced some of the most colourful, complex and distinctive textiles that we know.

These early Peruvians seem to have put all their artistic energies into textiles. Embroidered cloth was for them roughly what bronze was for the Chinese at the same date: the most revered material in their culture, and the clearest sign of status and authority. These particular pieces of cloth have come down to us because they were buried in the dry desert conditions of the Paracas peninsula, just like the textiles that have survived from ancient Egypt from the same period, thousands of miles away. And in Peru, as in Egypt, the textiles were intended not just for wearing in daily life but also to wrap the dead. The Paracas textiles were used to clothe Peruvian mummies.

The Canadian weaver and textile specialist Mary Frame has been studying these Peruvian masterpieces for over 30 years, and she finds in these funeral cloths an extraordinary organisation at work:

"Some of the wrapping cloths were immense in these mummy bundles - one was 87 feet long. It would have been a social enactment, a happening, to lay out the yarns to make these cloths. You can have up to 500 figures on a single textile, and they are organised in very set patterns of colour repetition and symmetry patterns. The social levels were reflected in cloth to a tremendous degree. Everything was controlled about textiles - what kind of fibre, colours, materials could be used by what groups. And I think there has always been a tendency to do that - in a stratified society - to use something major, like textiles, to visibly reflect the levels in the society."

There was no writing that we know of at this time in Peru, so these textiles must have been a vital part of the visual language. The colours must have been electrifying against the everyday palette of yellow and beige hues that dominated the landscape of the sandy Paracas peninsula. They were certainly very difficult colours to achieve. The bright red tones were extracted from the roots of plants, while the deep purples came from molluscs gathered on the shore. The background cloth would have been cotton, spun and dyed before being woven on a loom. Figures were outlined first, and then the details - like clothes and facial features - were filled-in in different colours with exquisite precision, presumably by young people, as you need perfect eyesight for stitching like this.

Production would have required coordinating large numbers of differently skilled labourers - the people who reared the animals for the wool, who grew the cotton, who gathered the dyes and then the many who actually worked on the textiles themselves. A society that could organise all this, and devote so much energy and resource to materials for burial, must have been both prosperous and very highly structured.

Making the mummy bundles, in other words preparing the Paracas elite for burial, involved an elaborate ritual. The naked corpse was first bound with cords to fix it in a seated position. Wrapped pieces of cotton or occasionally gold were put in the mouth, and grander corpses had a golden mask strapped to the lower half of their face. After this the body was wrapped in a large embroidered textile - our fragments must come from one of these - and the encased body was then seated upright in a big shallow basket containing offerings of shell necklaces, bird feathers from the Amazonian jungle, animal skins and food, including maize and peanuts. Then body, offerings and basket, all together, were wrapped in layers of plain cotton cloth to form one giant conical mummy bundle, sometimes up to five feet (1.5m) wide.

It's impossible to know exactly what our embroidered figures represent. Apparently floating in the air, with bared teeth and clawed hands, it is easy to imagine that they are not human, but creatures from the spirit world. But as they hold daggers and severed heads, perhaps we are in the realm of ritual sacrifice. What is this killing for? And why would you embroider it on a textile? We're clearly in the presence here of a very complex structure of belief and myth, and the stakes are as high as they can be. For these are embroideries about life and death. Mary Frame again: ...

"The severed heads, the wounds, the strange posture, seem to be depicting a whole set of stages of transformation between the human into the mythic ancestor. Blood and fertility seem to be themes that are intertwined with this. These textiles are really directed like a supplication for success with crops. Peruvian land is very marginal, it's terrifically arid down there; I think the people had an intense focus on rituals that would ensure continual success. Water is necessary for plant growth - blood is conceived of as being even more potent for plant growth."

Mary Frame's hypothesis sounds convincing, not least because when the first Europeans arrived in central and south America over two thousand years later, they found societies structured around blood sacrifices to ensure the continuing cycle of seasons and crops. So these four little embroideries give us a huge amount of information, and stimulate a great deal of speculation, about how the people of the Paracas lived, died and believed. But quite apart from that, they are great imaginative achievements, masterpieces of needlework that still speak directly to contemporary fashion designers like Zandra Rhodes:

"My first reaction when I see these wonderful ancient textiles is - isn't it fantastic that they've survived, and they've survived with colours, and they're being preserved? And then the magnificence of being able to look at them. And when I get the chance, I would like to do a drawing of them, because it's only when you draw them that you can understand the shapes and how they've achieved it, and see the way the threads go. By being able to study them, you get to feel a closer connection, and even start to think: 'Could I do a whole Peruvian-inspired collection by starting to study the way the patterns go?' "

While the Americas before the Europeans arrived are still in many ways a mystery, continuing archaeology and research on textiles like these ones are helping us to piece together a clearer picture. But it's certain that American societies at this date, even advanced ones like the Paracas, were much smaller in scale than the contemporary states in the Middle East and in China that we've been looking at this week. It was to be many centuries yet before empires like the Incas would emerge.

But these textiles and embroideries of the Paracas, produced over two thousand years ago, remain among the greatest in the world. And it's not just designers who see them as having significant potential today. So do politicians. These textiles are now seen, literally, as part of the fabric of the nation and, in contemporary Peru, there is a determined effort to revitalise these traditional weaving and sewing practices, in order to connect modern Peruvians directly to their ancient, indigenous, and entirely non-European past.

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